Evaluating Thermal Imagers: The Five Steps You Can't Afford To Skip

John Hays Evaluating Thermal Imagers
Five Steps to Selecting the Best TI for Your Agency
by John Hays

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The right tool for the job

As law enforcement agencies adopt thermal imaging technology, agency decision makers are faced with the challenge of selecting the right product and accessories to meet their specific needs. Evaluators must select among several technologies, a great number of product features, a range of accessories, and a wide variety of service and support offerings. With the increasing complexity of the market, many agencies are finding it difficult to determine which thermal imager (TI) and which accessories they should purchase. This article aims to provide a picture of the ideal evaluation process, which should result in your agency making the best purchase decision.

Step One: Team Up and Learn
Start by selecting a team of people to manage the TI evaluation. It is important to include people of different ranks and specialties, including an officer with decision authority as well as line officers who will actually be using the TI. This variety on the team ensures that the selected unit is the actual unit that best meets the agency’s needs.

Before initiating the evaluation, take the time to learn the basics of thermal imaging:

  • How does the technology work?
  • What are the uses and limitations of TIs?
Evaluation teams should seek instruction from local agencies using TIs, local or state training agencies, private consulting or training groups, national trade shows, training seminars and even TI manufacturers. Be sure to verify what you are learning from as many independent sources as possible, because there is a lot of conflicting and inaccurate information in the field.

Law enforcement agencies lacking the resources or time to conduct an independent evaluation can request results from trusted agencies that have conducted extensive evaluations. By using evaluation reports from outside sources, an agency can gain the perspective of someone who has been through the process, without investing the time to conduct a thorough evaluation. If you rely on another agency’s report, try to compare their operational needs with yours to ensure that what is best for them is also best for you.

Inspecting a TI

Step Two: Do Your Homework
Initiate the homework phase by gathering information from distributors and TI manufacturers, with the goal of identifying all of the current products available. Next, get direct input from law enforcement agencies currently using TIs. While the equipment officer may offer insight on the evaluation process his agency undertook, make sure you also talk to the members to which a TI is actually assigned. Ask how well the unit has met the needs of law enforcement officers, and inquire about the value of various features on the unit. Ask the users about specific manufacturer claims on options or performance to verify if the unit performs as advertised. Determine what type of service and support was received from the manufacturer and/or local distributor. If you are new to thermal imaging technology, you will benefit from gleaning information and learning from the experiences of a number of different agencies.

After researching what is available as well as what other law enforcement agencies have found useful, develop an initial outline specifying what you believe are the critical features for a TI. Differentiate between “essential features” (such as durability) and “desirable features” (such as long battery life). Then review the units available and determine if you can immediately eliminate any of them from your evaluation process. You may eliminate a unit because it lacks a feature you feel is critical, or because it received poor reviews from other agencies. Even if you limit the initial field to two or three TIs, the evaluation process can demand a great deal of time and resources.

classroom evaluation

Step Three: The Classroom Test
Once you have narrowed the field to a manageable number of potential units, it is time to gain more detailed information and first-hand experience. Schedule a day for each manufacturer or local representative (or several of them) to make a “classroom presentation.” To be fair to the sales people, plan on 20 to 30 minutes per TI. This gives the sales person time to show you the features and benefits of his TIs while you gather other information, including:

  • Standard and optional features available on the unit, which can include temperature measurement, wireless video transmitter, zoom functions and optional viewing methods.
  • Unit operating procedures, including unit activation, battery changing and charging, and use of additional features.
  • Service issues, such as length of warranty (be sure to clarify what it covers), availability of extended warranty, service turnaround and availability of loaner units.
  • Performance characteristics, including durability, heat resistance, water resistance, transmitter strength, etc.
  • The cost of the unit, including additional features, extended warranties, accessories and spare parts.
  • Support offered as part of the overall package, including training (clarify the type of training: 20 minutes of how to turn it on, or two hours of how TIs work?), funding support, web resources and ongoing education.

Evaluating teams should always keep one key thought in mind: there is no recognized consensus standard for TI performance. As a result, law enforcement agencies should ensure that the supplier proves every claim he makes. If the supplier says his/her TI can stay underwater for an hour, fill up the kitchen sink and start a timer. If the supplier says the TI can be tossed across the room, then clear a path and let the tossing begin. While most suppliers are honest and ethical, some may unfairly stretch the truth to win your business. To protect yourself and your agency’s purchase, do not accept any claim or statement as fact until the supplier proves it. Mouse over the image on your left to see how it’s done.

For convenience, attempt to schedule all presentations on the same day or the same week, with all evaluation committee members present to ask questions and document their impressions of each manufacturer. Ideally, committee members should use a checklist or table to document their conclusions and to help ensure that a fair and equal comparison is made between the TIs.

SWAT evaluating SE35 during training

Step Four: The Real World Test
The real world test, or hands-on evaluation, is the most critical part of your evaluation process. While one thermal imager may stand out in the classroom, your final decision could be different after officers get the opportunity to use thermal imagers under realistic conditions. In the evaluation, some TIs will show they look and act better in the classroom than in the field. Some features seem great in the classroom, but do not perform as expected once they venture into the real world of law enforcement. As with the classroom presentations, aim to evaluate all of the units on the same day. This will allow each unit to be compared side-by-side in real time, under similar conditions.

Careful planning and preparation are essential to a successful hands-on evaluation. Before the evaluation, decide how you will test the features that mean the most to your agency, and develop a checklist to make sure that committee members are using the same criteria. Test each feature of the unit under various conditions and scenarios, such as simulated hazmat incidents, crime scene investigation, surveillance and outdoor searches. Crawl with each unit; look under objects. Determine if the TI can be carried easily, or if a surveillance team can use the TI for an extended period of time. Do not fall into the trap of single-use evaluation. Given the investment you are preparing to make, the imager you ultimately select should be as versatile as possible. A TI should be flexible and adapt well to use in a variety of circumstances and situations. Even if your agency does not anticipate use of an advertised function or application, you never know what the future may hold.

Officer using Bullard Thermal Imager from inside cruiser

Evaluate the TI under obscurant conditions such as fog, smoke, steam or inclement weather. Don’t forget daylight evaluations as well. How does the imager perform in the daylight? Does the screen develop an unmanageable glare? Accident investigations, fugitive searches, evidence recovery and other applications may occur in the daytime as well, so make sure the imager is up to the task.

Have members write notes about each TI immediately after using it. To help quantify the evaluation process, members should be encouraged to rank specific factors using a number scale. Develop the scale and factor sheet in advance, grading such aspects as ease of use, performance in the field, ability to carry other equipment, etc.

Step Five: The Decision
Following completion of the classroom and hands-on evaluations, it is time to decide which thermal imager best meets your agency’s needs. Compare the written notes and total the scored rankings. If there are specific features that are more valuable, you may want to consider weighing them more heavily. Remember to include non-tangible issues such as service and support, which will not only help you get your units into operation, but will also assist you in keeping them in service for years to come. Consider exactly how repairs are handled and the overall support you will receive. Do not forget the information you gathered from other agencies about their experiences with TIs. Your neighbor may be the best proof of what happens after you sign the purchase order.

Once you have determined which TI you will purchase, place your order or formulate the bid documents. The distributor or manufacturer can help you write appropriate bid specifications.

Despite the wider acceptance of TIs in law enforcement and the fire service, there is still much misinformation and misunderstanding about the technology. Potential buyers must perform the proper amount of preparation and evaluation to ensure that they purchase the best overall value possible. Remember that value is not just price. Spending less money on TIs may seem like a bargain, until those TIs are repeatedly out of service or sitting in their cases because officers find them awkward or unusable. As with any other capital expenditure, law enforcement agencies should expect their units to provide years of reliable service. A successful evaluation process should lead your agency to choose the TI with the best design and features, best record of accomplishment in real world performance and best possible service and support. It is not easy to make a proper selection, but time well spent on the process will ensure that law enforcement agencies and the public it serves will reap long-term benefits from these valuable tools.

John Hays is the Product Line Manager for Emergency Responders at Bullard. He has spent more than 13 years developing emergency responder products for the fire, rescue and police markets. Hays' technical expertise in developing emergency responder products has been instrumental in advancing the use of thermal imagers in the fire service and law market.

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